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A Light Touch on Iran

It may be trite to call the recent unrest in Iran a “Persian Spring”; then again, it may not be at all. The protests, which began last week and have shaken the regime in Tehran, already show much in common with the vernal demonstrations that engulfed the Middle East back in 2011: both arose seemingly from nowhere, both spread rapidly, both threatened seismic political change as a consequence of economic stagnation. “Death to Khamenei!” went one incredible chant in western Iran last weekend; “we don’t want an Islamic republic!” went another. That’s evidence enough that this is about more than the cost of eggs [1], that the authoritarian lid Iran’s ayatollahs have tried to keep on its young populace may be close to popping off.

The protests have also energized foreign policy hawks here in the United States. Ever on the lookout for self-gratifying moral binaries, they’ve found one in the aspirational demonstrators challenging Iran’s theocratic regime, and the usual hackneyed rhetoric has been hauled out accordingly. The Trump administration is exhorted to Not Stay Silent, as though starving Iranians are waiting on pins and needles for the go-ahead from Rex Tillerson. Barack Obama’s diplomatic team, which pursued a rapprochement with Iran’s government, has come in for fresh scorn. And the nuclear deal with Tehran, implemented under Obama and menaced by Donald Trump, is said to be discredited, a morally pusillanimous endorsement of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy that clearly isn’t shared by its people.

That last argument in particular is immensely historically illiterate. If negotiating with a government is the same as legitimizing it, then Ronald Reagan, who inked arms reduction agreements and prisoner swaps [2] with Mikhail Gorbachev, was a booster of Soviet tyranny. (And indeed some of the hawks who deify Reagan today called him a Chamberlain back then [3].) George W. Bush is also guilty of appeasement for signing an arms treaty with Vladimir Putin [4] and trying to usher Erdogan’s Turkey into the European Union [5]. Perhaps in some geopolitical Brigadoon the United States can afford to zero out every human rights abuser, but here in the real world we must work with nations that often aren’t gallant democracies. It was in America’s interests to see Iran’s nuclear enrichment curtailed. The idea that pursuing that goal diplomatically was a betrayal of the Iranian people is preposterous.

In fact, Iran’s electorate endorsed the Obama agreement twice, at least indirectly. Contra all the drivel about there being no difference between Iranian hardliners and reformists, Iran’s 2016 elections offered a clearly delineated choice. On one side was the List of Hope, most of whose candidates backed President Hassan Rouhani’s program of gradually opening Iran to the world and liberalizing its commerce. On the other side were the conservatives, known as principlists, who called for a “resistance economy” that would keep Iran self-sufficient and its Islamic tenets pure. This was at its core a referendum on the nuclear deal, and the moderates won handily, securing all 30 of Tehran’s seats in the Iranian parliament. Then, last year, Rouhani himself was reelected to the presidency. Today’s demonstrations show that Rouhani’s reforms proved much too narrow—even his required submission to the Islamic republic may have become a liability as the values of the 1979 revolution lose their luster. But aborting the nuclear deal because Rouhani wasn’t perfect would have only empowered his fanatical opponents; it would have gone against the expressed will of the Iranian people, not with it.

In addition to its political side effects, the nuclear deal was just as it sounds: an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. By that metric, it’s been a success, bequeathing one of the most invasive inspections regime ever inside Iran, downgrading reactors, filling facilities with cement, shipping away 98 percent of Iran’s atomic fuel, resulting in near-total compliance so far as certified by the IAEA [6]. Those accomplishments aren’t somehow vitiated by the protests in the streets. The downside to the nuclear agreement has been that it unfroze billions in Iranian regime assets, some of which went to fund proxies in foreign civil wars. That’s a serious problem, but it’s also been a catalyst for the present demonstrations. Recent chants like “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” [7] and “leave Syria alone, think about us” [8] indicate deep dissatisfaction over Iran’s foreign policy, under which great sums have been spent abroad while the Iranian economy molders. (That similar sentiments are routinely trashed as isolationist here in the United States by the same hawks now beating their breasts in support of Iran’s dissenters is succulent irony indeed.)

Iran’s regime survives in part through the same strategy employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Chavismo’s Venezuela: diverting all blame for its problems onto enemies afar, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the United States. But a Washington that sits down with Mohammad Zarif rather than heaping on further sanctions is a far less persuasive scapegoat for Iranian poverty. The effect of the nuclear deal was thus to shift much of the onus for Iran’s present condition onto its government. It was Tehran that inherited that needed frozen money, Tehran that chose to spend much of it on Assad rather than Mashhad, and Tehran that gave Iran’s security forces—the IRGC and Basij militias, which remain sanctioned—monopolistic power that’s impeded further investment. It’s true that Donald Trump’s constant belching in Iran’s direction hasn’t helped either, but against such obvious Iranian culpability, the usual anti-American slogans ring all the hollower.

Just because the Iranians are out against their kleptocratic and theocratic regime, however, doesn’t mean their sympathies will naturally gravitate towards us. Iran still has genuine grievances against America, including the installation of the Shah, our support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and our shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988. For that reason, we have to be cautious. All the more so since the hotbeds of protest aren’t the hip Tehran neighborhoods that Iran analysts are accustomed to studying [9], but deeply religious centers like Mashaad and Qom, which are typically supportive of the government. I don’t know how to say “deplorable” in Farsi, but there does seem to be parallels between Iran’s revolt and the Trump phenomenon: traditional and invisible blue collars weary of a political class more enamored with foreign capitals than its own citizens. These people are hungry for change, but they’re also incipiently nationalistic, which means they’re not necessarily pro-American.

What shouldn’t we do? As usual, bad counsel is found in the Weekly Standard [10], which recommends that we threaten to reimplement sanctions at their pre-nuclear deal levels because that “would do irreparable harm to [Iran’s] economy and thus the regime’s authority.” First, no, it wouldn’t, it would only lend credence to the hardliners. And second, contemplate for a moment the clinical insanity of starving a people you support in order to damage a government you don’t like (a strategy that notably failed against Saddam Hussein, by the way). This is exactly the sort of bumptious thinking that’s left American-Iranian relations in tatters, and it’s crucial in the coming days that Donald Trump inoculate himself against it. Change in Iran may come gradually or gradually then rapidly, but whatever its pace, America’s touch must remain light.


Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "A Light Touch on Iran"

#1 Comment By Lenny On January 2, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

I am confident that Trump with help from Cotton and Haley will manage to screw this one up

I should say, he already started

#2 Comment By Realist On January 3, 2018 @ 2:02 am

The Zionists will push Trump to attack Iran and Trump the dolt he is may, do it.

#3 Comment By maryam On January 3, 2018 @ 6:43 am

we iranian people are doomed.iran is doomed.just check the nytimes.it is astonishing.when mullahs of iran have such strong and powerfull allies in united state they kill easily as they did 40 years ago.in eye of nytimes iran is such a prosperous and safe country that offer its readers 8000$!!! tour of iran which birth place of khomeini will be visited.really??? are there so much rich stupid ignorant americans outthere who want to fill pockets of mullas?? if there are; mullas of iran will be here far longer than we can imagine.

#4 Comment By Alan On January 3, 2018 @ 7:32 am

Shaken the Regime ??

1. The legitimate economic demonstrations have been acknowledged

2. The vandals burning down buildings and attacking police will be arrested and dealt with

Iran government has barely lifted a finger.

These demonstrations will be a over in a week or so.

#5 Comment By Youknowho On January 3, 2018 @ 8:42 am

To all those who complain that dealing with unsavory regimes is legitmizing the, the advice of Don Vito Corleone is most appropiate

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”

#6 Comment By Youknowho On January 3, 2018 @ 8:43 am

And what we can hope for is that this movement gets a soft landing, and that it results is neither a strengthening of the repression nor a government collapse that leads to chaos and a new dictatorship…

#7 Comment By SDS On January 3, 2018 @ 9:48 am

Donald Trump, Lindsay Graham, Tom Cotton – thinking rationally and strategically like suggested?

Even if they could; Israel would have none of it…

And THAT’S who’s really in charge…

#8 Comment By AddictionMyth On January 3, 2018 @ 11:59 am

I agree but would add one more thing: Democracy is worthless without freedom of speech, religion, press and association. If the demonstrators support that then great, let’s support them. Otherwise, stay the hell out. Because they are no better than what they already have.

#9 Comment By Michael Harrington On January 3, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

The Iranian electorate was in favor of the nuclear deal because they believed their leaders were negotiating in good faith. The expectation was a normalization of political and economic relations with the rest of the world, especially the US, and the benefits of such. Now they feel betrayed by their own ruling elite and they know who to blame.

#10 Comment By Michael Harrington On January 3, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

This budding revolution is part and parcel of a worldwide movement toward the reassertion of national identity. Because cohesive national identity is an essential condition for a stable democracy. OneWorldism is out. The nation-state lives.

#11 Comment By amir On January 3, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

How you conclude most Iranian are against Iran foreign policy? a small group of protesters chanted some political slogan . It is hardly an evidence of what most iranian think about the issue.

#12 Comment By Youknowho On January 3, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

Well, the bull in the china shop is making sure that the protesters are hanged…


#13 Comment By John Smithson On January 3, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

It is hard to know what to do in today’s complex world. But it does look like Donald Trump’s touch in Iran will be light, as is recommended here.

The protests going on now are minor and will likely soon be over without turning into anything more. But we do need to treat Iran as an enemy and not as a friend. They are much more of an enemy than Russia.

Best to leave things in Iran to the Iranian people, except where it affects us and our allies. Certainly war in any form makes no sense at all.

#14 Comment By Richard On January 3, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

Speaking as a conservative, my policy preferences toward Iran have little to nothing to do with the interests of the Iranian people. As far as I am concerned, they are complicit in the conduct of their leadership and must bear a share of the responsibility for what happens to them.

In addition, I did not oppose negotiating with the mullahs on grounds that it might “legitimize” them. I opposed negotiations because I did not – and do not – trust them to fulfill their end of any bargain. I believed then, as now, that any agreement made between Obama and the mullahs would only benefit the Iranian regime.

#15 Comment By jeff b On January 3, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

sounds like a bunch of anti-Semite trump haters that can not acknowledge that Obama’s foreign policy left the world a much less safe place than when he took office and the iran nuclear deal was one of the worst decisions in the history of this country. When actual historians write the story of the Obama years it will be a small paragraph in the chapter labeled the country’s worst presidents.

#16 Comment By amir On January 3, 2018 @ 7:33 pm


lol the same here . Iranian think American are responsible for US gov. actions (wars , coups etc)

As for not fulfilling part of bargain it is US who is cheating not Iran

#17 Comment By mike On January 4, 2018 @ 9:04 am

I’m not a conservative but this was a pleasing read, both for content and the non-polarizing style.

#18 Comment By Dominique Watkins On January 6, 2018 @ 10:45 am

Great interview on NPR, well done.

#19 Comment By Ding Dong Etc On January 9, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

Speaking as a conservative, I have little to say about what Iranians decide to do in Iran or what Iran gets up to elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s up to Iran and its neighbors.

I wish Trump and his pals would shut the hell up about Iran and start doing something about AMERICA.